Rizal’s Boost for Philippine Independence

Rizal’s Boost for Philippine Independence

In an article in the Philippine Free Press on December 17, 1952, newspaperman Vicente Pacis narrated how he met Congressman Henry A. Cooper and learned how Jose Rizal, even in death, had a hand in bringing about Philippine independence.  Pacis was an AP correspondent in 1926 when he accidentally entered Cooper’s office at the U. S. Capitol.  Cooper, an elderly man from Wisconsin, was just eager to meet the young Filipino and to tell him about his authorship of the Philippine Organic Act of 1902.
The Philippine-American War which started in 1899 after Spain ceded the Philippines to the U. S. for $20 million was winding down because of superior American forces.  However, America was ambivalent about what to do with their trophy.  The Anti-Imperialist League led by ex-President Grover Cleveland, William Jennings Bryan and Andrew Carnegie opposed the annexation of the Philippines.  They have no use for a “country of savages incapable of civilization” and would prefer to leave the expansion of empires to countries like England, Germany, France, Spain, etc.
Indeed, most Americans and newspapers viewed the people of the Philippines as barbarians, savages, pirates and unfit for self-government.  President William McKinley agonized over what to do with the Philippines.  The American constitution was explicitly against imperialism and his government was harassed by people who could not imagine such uncultured savages becoming Americans.  Still, he and the ruling Republican Party decided to acquire the Philippines and gradually prepare it through education for democracy and independence.
The task fell on Congress to pass the enabling laws and this is where Congressman Cooper as chairman of the Committee on Insular Affairs came in.  In his long sponsorship speech on June 19, 1902, he opened with
“Before we say that the Filipino people are barbarians and savages whose future is hopeless, we should remember the past and not forget how largely human beings are the products of environment. . . . Think of their history! For three hundred hopeless years they had seen Spanish officials treat office merely as a means by which to rob the helpless people. For three hundred years they lived under a government which deliberately kept the mass of the people in ignorance, which deliberately sought to close to them every avenue of social and political advancement; a government under which it was well-nigh useless for a man even to attempt to acquire property, because his accumulations furnished only so much more of temptation and opportunity for the rapacity of government officials; a government which punished even the most respectful protest against its infamous executions with banishment or death. . . .
“What the Filipinos think, what they feel what they do, are only the natural results of what they have undergone. Yet, despite this environment, this deprivation, this outrage, this unfortunate race has given to the world not a few examples of intellectual and moral worth—men in the height of mind and power of character.”
Then Cooper talked of Jose Rizal thus,
“It has been said that if American institutions had done nothing else than furnish to the world the character of George Washington, ‘that alone would entitle them to the respect of mankind.’ So, I say to all those who denounce the Filipinos indiscriminately as barbarians and savages, without possibility of a civilized future, that this despised race proved itself entitled to their respect and to the respect of mankind when it furnished to the world the mind and character of Jose Rizal.”
He then narrated the life of Rizal from his birth in Calamba to his execution in Luneta.
“On the night before his death, he wrote a poem,” Cooper continued. “I will read it, that the house may know what were the last thoughts of this ‘pirate,’ this ‘barbarian,’ this ‘savage,’ of a race ‘incapable of civilization’!”
Without drama but with feeling, Cooper recited Derbyshire’s English version of Mi Ultimo Adios. After he said the last line, “Beloved creatures all, farewell! In death there is rest,” there was a long solemn silence. Then the entire House broke into prolonged and loud applause.
The first Philippine Organic Act was approved on July 1, 1902 to coincide with the conclusion of the Philippine-American War.  It provided for the creation of an elected Philippine Assembly.  Other important provisions included a bill of rights for the Filipinos, the disestablishment of the Roman Catholic Church as the state religion and the conservation of natural resources for the Filipinos.
The Cooper Act was followed by other legislations including eventually the Tydings-McDuffie Act of 1934 which created the Philippine Commonwealth and stipulated July 4, 1946 as the date when the United States handed the independence to the Philippines.
And so, by invoking the genius of Jose Rizal, Congressman Henry A. Cooper got the ball rolling towards Philippine independence.  And we scratch another notch in the lore of our national hero.

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